When D, B, and B came in with yearbooks for me to sign, they left a final message to the Latin Family on the whiteboard. “Congratulations, Class of 2014,” it says, “We made it.” It’s Graduation Day again … the ceremony, for once, is in the late afternoon, so Ms. X and Mr. Y don’t “have to” fuss about being asked to stay at school and watch over the “bad, lazy ones” who “actually came to school even though they know we aren’t doing anything.” Instead, the whole faculty will be there for the big occasion … and that probably means Ms. X and Mr. Y will be fussing about having to go, to wear regalia, to “sit in that hot auditorium and watch those kids walk across that stage” for an hour or so today.
“Were you really relieved when you graduated, Mr. S?” L asked me yesterday morning. L isn’t graduating, but he’s relieved to be finished with all of his Great Big Important State Tests. Yes, I told L, I guess I was relieved … and excited, and happy, and a bit apprehensive. But as I keep think about L’s question and that message from D, B, and B, I find myself with a lot more questions and a lot fewer answers.
I’m not sure relieved is an emotion I felt at any of my graduations. For one thing, they were officially Commencements. And the word choice makes a big difference. It’s been nearly thirty years, but if memory serves, my high-school classmates and I were looking forward to new beginnings. I’m sure there was relief in the background, especially for those of us who had been sweating over that last exam in that last required course. But a mixture of excitement and anticipation and some sadness and nostalgia … that’s what I remember from that long-ago May afternoon. I think I was a bit more relieved at my undergraduate Commencement, but that’s because that spring had been particularly busy and challenging. Successfully packing up and moving out of a dorm room on time … that’s what brought the sense of relief. I remember that the future seemed both promising and scary, bright and obscure; I also remember that I hadn’t thought to wear sunscreen for an outdoor ceremony, and I ended up with a “lovely” sunburn on one side of my face.
And in both cases I remember where the family went for lunch, though I don’t remember specifically what we ate.
But a lot has changed in the intervening years. My generation, though skeptical and suspicious, still half-believed the factory-model narrative. Many of my classmates eventually found nice, safe jobs in nice, large companies and organizations … with benefits and a nice, safe retirement plan. Of course, many of those nice, safe jobs and companies have since disappeared; I’m thinking of a high-school classmate who got a really prestigious job until … well, you’ll see if you click the link. But we thought we knew the rules, and we thought we could follow them safely to a place of success and comfort by the time we reached midlife. For us, the relief was “supposed to” come at retirement, after thirty or forty years of doing good work at one or two of those nice, safe companies.
I know my seniors don’t believe that narrative! The narrative of going to college and getting a good job is a lot less believable than it was for their counterparts even five or six years ago. N wants to be a nurse, so she’s exploring ROTC programs that will pay for school and guarantee her a job (and the military lifestyle she grew up with) when she’s finished. K, who graduated a few years ago and is happily married to her Favorite Soldier, has finally decided she’s clear enough on her career goals to want to spend the money and time on college. T, my most financially and personally successful Latin Family alumnus, didn’t bother with college at all; he and his wife started a business in their early twenties and now have the income and the leisure to pursue learning, which they both loved, rather than formal education, which they found tedious at best.
Maybe that’s why relief is the dominant feeling for D, B, and B. They’re all planning to go to college, but they’ve chosen programs that appeal to them, programs that should lead to employment in fields where employment opportunities are still growing. And the key, of course, is that they’ve chosen. No more “because Ms. X said so” or “because that’s just what you have to do” for them. Even the general-education requirements they’ll complete seem less onerous, I think, because they’ve chosen the pathway for themselves. And of course they expect to be surrounded by friends old and new who have made similar choices … who may even form something like a joyful learning community along the way.
Choice … and community. There’s something deeply hopeful about that combination on this busy Friday morning … and that brings me a sense of relief, too, a relief I wasn’t really expecting. I wonder what other new insights and challenges the next few days will bring!